Benjamin's true tall tale
WR was redshirted in 2011 as he struggled to learn a complex playbook
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The pass was thrown down the sideline, high.
This was the summer, during seven-on-seven drills with no coaches on hand to critique the route or fans to applaud results.
A cornerback shadowed him just a step behind, but Kelvin Benjamin was in pursuit of a football that rightfully belonged to him. He galloped down the sideline at full speed, each long stride taking him closer to the football and farther from his defender.
From the backfield, Devonta Freeman watched in awe. Without breaking stride, Benjamin turned, reached into the air, snatched the football with one hand, and sauntered a few more yards into the end zone for a touchdown. It was easy, fluid, natural.
"You can't be serious," he said.
Benjamin is 6-foot-6 and towers above his opposition. He is a giant.
He soars over defenders, rescuing footballs that might otherwise have been captured by a defensive back. He is a super hero.
He rumbles over cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage and dashes furiously downfield to secure a bomb in the end zone. He is a warrior.
He has never played a game at Florida State, but the legend of Kelvin Benjamin has taken root, grown with exponential speed, each tall tale a little taller than the last but, astonishingly, his teammates insist, all are true.
From quarterback EJ Manuel: "We're not going to sit and throw hitches. We want to stretch the field and give K.B. a chance to shine."
From fellow receiver Rodney Smith: "He's going to be bad, boy. He's a Calvin Johnson type of receiver."
From defensive coordinator Mark Stoops: "He's a monster."
From Freeman: "He's easily going to be one of the great ones."
Benjamin has heard all of this. He's embraced it, relished it, been motivated by it. It has also distracted him.
Even for a legend, nothing comes easily.
"Having so much hype, you've got the bar set so high," Benjamin said. "It's pretty much down from there."
A year ago, the buzz wasn't quite as intense, but Benjamin was already pegged as a future star. He had nine inches on the average cornerback, speed that rivaled most safeties, and hands that might as well have been lathered in glue.
Benjamin oozed potential, but the reality of his first year at Florida State wasn't nearly as impressive. Where fans saw power, speed and certainty, head coach Jimbo Fisher saw an overweight receiver, ambivalent about success and unprepared for the challenges ahead.
The legend was redshirted.
The obvious explanation, as far as Benjamin was concerned, was that the coaches disliked him. They had a grudge against him. They wanted to tear him down while everyone else was busy building him up. Why else would they see so many flaws where so many found greatness?
"I used to get down with criticism," Benjamin said. "I wasn't good with that."
Knowing he wouldn't play as a freshman, Benjamin often loafed through practices. His weight ballooned to nearly 260 pounds. The playbook was complex, and it didn't hold his attention.
On game day though, reality sunk in, and Benjamin was provided a glimpse of what he was missing.
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Slowly, the cloak of invincibility in which Benjamin had shrouded himself began to fall away.
He saw coaches criticize the veterans for a bad route then watched those same players go back onto the field and run it better. He saw fellow freshman Rashad Greene work his way into the starting lineup and become one of the ACC's top receivers. He felt the buzz that had surrounded him for so long fade away as fans turned their attention toward players who were contributing on the field.
Finally, receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey pulled Benjamin aside and offered some perspective.
"All these guys look up to you," Dawsey said. "You probably don't even know it, but they do."
For all the platitudes Benjamin had relished, all the headlines he'd read, he hadn't grasped the impact his status actually afforded him within the locker room.
He was blessed with immense ability, but he was wasting it, and his teammates knew it.
"I realized that, dang, even though I'm a freshman, these guys are looking for big things out of me," Benjamin said. "That changed my whole mind-set."
In the months since, Benjamin has shed nearly 20 pounds. He's studied the playbook and focused on the details. He's done his best to avoid reading the newspapers and message boards that fuel the legend.
"I've seen K.B. grow up," Manuel said.
This fall, Fisher offered an ultimatum to his receivers: If a ball is in the air, it's yours. The ones who fight for those catches will be rewarded.
"I think it's K.B.," Manuel said. "They see him doing it all the time, and it pumps up everybody. When he's making a great catch over [cornerback] Xavier Rhodes, it gets all of us riled up."
Benjamin still has fun at practice, he said, but he understands it is not playtime. His teammates still offer encouragement, push him to work harder, run farther and jump higher, but now it is less about pushing him to reach his potential and more about seeing how immense that potential really might be.
Benjamin, too, wants to push the limits of his ability. His checklist of accomplishments he hopes to achieve this season reads like a Hall-of-Fame plaque.
"I want to be the first receiver ever to win the Biletnikoff (Award) at Florida State," he said. "I want to be All-American this year. Anything they need me to do, I'll do it to get to that ACC championship, national championship. You've got to put a mindset to things. If you believe it, it can happen."
Belief has never been the issue for Benjamin.
He believes he will be great. His teammates believe it. Fans virtually guarantee it.
At the top though, there's a long way to fall, so Benjamin is embracing a starting point more befitting of his current list of accomplishments, which includes zero catches for zero yards.
Florida State's initial depth chart has Benjamin listed third at the Z receiver position. Fisher said that can change, but Benjamin needs to earn a promotion.
"I kind of like the depth chart," Benjamin said. "It keeps me working. It's something to chase."
The stories are all true. The legend is real. But this is the beginning, the first chapter when the hero is still grappling to understand his power.
How the rest of saga unfolds depends entirely on Benjamin, on how much he's matured and how much more he's willing to work.
Benjamin promises he won't disappoint.
"The fans can expect a lot," he said. "Not even just in catches, even on blocking plays, I'm trying to just straight dominate cornerbacks. I'm ready to get out there."